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We devote a huge proportion of our time here at Natural Horse NZ to helping horses that are adversely affected by eating high sugar toxic grasses, and our horse welfare organisation gives free advice as well as hands on help to the people that are struggling to care for these horses thankfully to very successful results…..but we still see a lot of confusion over horses and grass in our challenging NZ conditions, so I wanted to talk about what being “grass affected” actually means for your horse and how to cope with it, as well as why we suffer so badly with it here in New Zealand?

Firstly let me say that this is a fairly recent problem, as although mycotoxins themselves can be traced back several thousand years to ancient Egypt, within New Zealand it’s a fairly new issue at just 20+ years ago, when prior to that our great nation was predominantly a very large sheep farm with safe grasses being our staple food source for most of our stock animals, including our horses throughout that time ……but over the past couple of decades our farming practices have changed more towards Aotearoa being a huge dairy farm, making beef and milk our greatest exports, and due to this our farmers needs for hardier high sugar grasses has increased exponentially, all in order to increase meat and milk production for cows, and it’s this that has created most of the problems that we now suffer with regarding problematic feeds that affect our NZ horses and their physical and medical issues in relation to this. As they are being fed like they are a cow!

And now all those recent hardy farming grasses have taken over most of the country, because as often every other type of grass eventually dies out in our long, and often arid summers, it’s these hardy grasses that fill those older grasses place when that happens……hence why we are now up to epidemic levels of issues with horses through 99% of them suffering with the effects of eating from unsuitable non-horse pastures.

So what is the main problem with these new grasses as surely grass is just grass isn’t it?

To put it simply, not all grasses are created equal….and ryegrass as well as other non-brown top breeds of grass can be an extreme product for horses that causes two separate issues that run side by side, which add up to being big problems for our equine friends….the first of which is due to high sugars, and the second being the effects of dangerous mycotoxins that live in the grass and other pasture plants that our horses eat.

The main issues with a lot of farming grasses is that they are very high in non-digestible plant sugars called fructans, as they have been amplified and bred for these traits, in order to pack on weight on beef and dairy animals fast for more profits and higher turnovers. 

It is this artificial breeding of farming grasses, which is also done for improved resistance to bugs and weevils, as well as the addition of very high sugar content, that has caused big problems for horses. As when plant sugars bond together and crystallise we see many medical issues occur. So eating these is not good for our horses, as for one they can't digest the fructans (bonded plant sugars), so the stomach acids don't break them down like they do with other foods, and then they end up passing through into the horse's stomach in their unchanged and undigested form, which can cause a host of issues including making the horse produce more stomach acid as the body tries it's hardest to break them down, which when this happens is called acidosis.

Acidosis is the leading cause of ulcers, as well as colic and can also induce laminitis in equines of all breeds, types and sizes. 

Therefore, this is very bad news indeed for our horses health. Who have evolved over 55 million years to nibble for most of their day on a wide variety of low sugar, high fibre foods such as tussock grasses, shrubs, bark, leaves etc…rather than pig out of these unsuitable sugary grasses.

In addition to our horses having problems with undigestible sugars, they also have high sugars to deal with too in the form of profit making cow grasses......And to put this into human terms … many of you, I enjoy the odd piece of candy myself, however I would become very ill indeed if I lived off candy for every meal of breakfast lunch and dinner, which is what is happening to our horses….making them have issues with metabolism that are very similar to diabetes in humans, caused by too much sugar, and high insulin levels are causing lamanitic type issues for a lot of them due to this lifestyle issue, which is like the equine equivalent to diabetes, along with many other medical conditions based around poor nutrition such as poor hoof quality, and hoof issues such as abscesses, and white line diseases that we call Seedy Toe etc…as well as we see sugar high elevated behaviours from these horses, as their bodies and minds struggle to process all these sugars on a 24/7 basis …..

Then to add insult to injury our poor horses are also exposed to a plethora of dangerous mycotoxins contained within so many of these grasses and also in many pasture plants, because they are a plants natural defence systems. So add to this already “grass high” horse and you now have a recipe for disaster in both negative behaviours and poor quality nutrition all causing illness and a very misunderstood horse.

To explain a bit more about mycotoxins…..with the word breaking down to mean-MYCO-relating to fungi and TOXIN-meaning poisonous-So most of our ryegrass has been selectively bred to amplify strains that include a naturally built in fungus, that is also sometimes called a mycotoxin, endophyte or grass toxin, ….all of which are referring to toxic fungi that live within the grass from the root, through the stem and into the seed head, and are in grass, hays, chaffs, baleage, silage and haylage, as well as pelleted grain products such as processed feeds for horses, that have been made from these toxic grasses so it’s virtually impossible to have a NZ horse who is not affected by this.

This pairing between the grass and the fungus provides a beneficial partnership where both entities win, as the grass benefits from having this fungus on board as it protects it from being eaten by invertebrates such as bugs and weevils etc…who are sensible enough to stay away from toxic grasses, therefore the grass grows more and has more of a chance to reach its goal of maturity as to reproduce, and then the mycotoxins get nutrients off the grass so it’s a win win partnership for both grass and fungus alike.

When ingested these poisonous mycotoxins that have grown within the grass, can affect brain function and cause visual dysmorphia, as well as hallucinations, along with a change in body function such as elevated adrenaline levels, and stress hormonal changes as the body tries to cope with being effectively poisoned, along with mass inflammation, plus changes to organs and liver function etc…, with paraesthesia, which is a feeling of tingling sensations, and soreness amongst the body as the nerves are affected by the poisons contained within the mycotoxins making the horse experience feelings that are not really there, and being a prey animal this causes extreme fear and panic within most horses, which is uncontrollable and very dangerous, hence the highly elevated behaviours that go hand in hand with the grass affected horse.

Again put this all into human terms this would involve us having frightening hallucinations and severe paranoia, with perhaps a feeling of insects crawling on our body, hence the phantom flies the poor horse tries to flick off his body…which I have written about so we can see how terrified our poor equine friends could be when toxic.......then we can see stiffness in the muscles, especially at the hind end from misfiring brain signals, along with soreness to the skin causing routine tacking up to have major issues such as being girthed up or having the saddle placed on the horses extremely sore body to be very painful indeed, so we see bucking and other uncharacteristic behaviours like biting and flattened ears etc in response to these routine issues from otherwise normally well behaved horses, in addition to a host of other unpleasant allergy type symptoms as the myco toxins build up in your horse's body to dangerous levels.

And then to add insult to injury, we are seeing increased rates of equines who are being affected growing every year with this being the worst year so far, that is partly due to our ideal grass growing climate here in NZ, with this year’s very wet spring making matters much worse as fungi thrive off moisture.

So now you know the affects, what can we do to help our horses cope with these grass issues…?

FIRSTLY and more importantly –please do not tell your toxic horse off if he over reacts… won’t help and will only serve to scare his already fragile state of mind, as he is suffering with a very real medical condition that affects his mind, and is not being silly or naughty etc…, so we ask that you please have a little empathy for him or her. AND PLEASE DO NOT RIDE A TOXIC HORSE –EVER! That means regardless of whether you have a show or anything else planned that you might think is essential to ride for, it is still a big NO NO, as it’s simply just too dangerous. So we implore you not to ride your horse for your own safety when he is like this as he could even kill you, albeit it would be by accident.

SECONDLY -give your horse a daily toxin binder to prevent absorption of toxins….this really is an essential component of 99.9% of NZ horses staple diets these days, as a quality binder will help to reduce the absorption of these dangerous toxins in the horse's body, stopping the dangerous affects from building up. A warning here though- sadly we have seen and heard of many outfits selling so called toxin binders to unsuspecting horse owners who have little or no toxin binder qualities in them…so please check for glucomannan in the products you buy, as this yeast cell wall extract is the all-important toxin binder properties and without it you would be simply wasting your hard earned money. Another issue I saw this week was a product aimed at the aftereffects of horses being toxic which I was appalled to see was over $100 for a small bottle and had absolutely zero science to support its claims which to be honest were nonsense, so again please be careful to not fall for these scams. Here at Natural Horse NZ we have developed our own toxin binder, which is one of the best binders on the market that is both affordable and effective, as we subsidize it's costs to encourage more owners to use it. We have received outstanding feedback for all who have used it-so check it out on this link:

THIRDLY-restrict green grass to a minimum as to reduce sugars as that’s half of the battle won for equine health for our NZ horse or pony, and feed plain meadow hay instead (not Lucerne) in a slow feed haynet as to replicate natural grazing….but don’t lock the horse up to do this. We can achieve this by taping off a track system to allow the horse to enjoy the freedom of being outside with his buddies etc… without the nightmare of having too much green grass…see this link for more on this…

AND LASTLY: make sure you are feeding a well-balanced multi mineral/vitamin mix along with an anti-inflammatory diet, as can be found on this link as this will help your horse get all the beneficial nutrients he needs to help him reduce inflammations in his body that comes from eating sugary grass and other toxic products such as hay, chaffs, silage, balage, haylage and grain based pelleted bagged feeds. See this link for more info to help with diet..

We sincerely hope this will help you understand the issues your horse is going through, as to help you have a happier horse 🙂